Tag Archives: Matt Kenyon

Theatre Charlotte’s “The Producers Is More Politically Incorrect Than Ever

Review:  The Producers

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When I first saw Mel Brooks’ The Producers on Broadway in 2001, my disappointment in not seeing Nathan Lane in the role of Max Bialystock was assuaged by the realization that the show was still so damn good with last-minute replacement Brad Oscar filling the megastar’s shoes. Each of the successive versions I’ve seen in Charlotte – the national tour at Ovens Auditorium in 2004 and the CPCC Summer Theatre production at Halton Theater in 2009 – has only strengthened my conviction that Lane was not an essential ingredient in the show’s success.

But isn’t it too much to expect a smashing Producers at Theatre Charlotte, where they don’t have a Broadway-sized budget – or even a spacious orchestra pit like the Halton’s? Make a couple of allowances and then prepare to be astonished.

Scenic design by Chris Timmons is cheesy, even by community theatre standards, and there are no live musicians in sight – or out of sight – at the Queens Road barn. Once you get past those visible and audible austerities, you can revel in the costume designs by Rachel Engstrom, so crucial to the big “Springtime for Hitler” climax, and in the deep cast, so necessary in putting over Brooks’ comedy and his schlocky score.

Benefitting from the embarrassment of riches that showed up at auditions, director Caroline Bower hasn’t squandered her good fortune. In David Catenazzo as Max, she has found a leading man who is as seedy as Timmons’ scenery. Mostly a secret kept in recent years by JStage at the Levine Jewish Community Center, where he has starred in A Year With Frog and Toad and Fiddler on the Roof, Catenazzo proves to have a strong singing voice to go along with his comedic gifts. He absolutely oozes corruption, eager to enlist humdrum accountant Leo Bloom to cook his books, eager to bilk show investors in a surefire flop, and rabid to shtup Ulla, the voluptuous Swedish actress who turns up early for auditions.

A second solid gold debut comes from Landon Sutton as the diffident Leo, more than nerdy enough for a numbers crusher who discovers how to pocket a shady profit from a Broadway flop. There’s pallid innocence to Sutton’s manner as Leo, plus a little endearing pudginess, that works well when he’s too timid to plunge into the crooked scheme he has inspired. But there’s a surprisingly strong and smooth singing voice when Leo jumps aboard on the reprise of “We Can Do It,” and hormonal heat in “That Face,” his serenade to Ulla.

Brooks’ book and lyrics are so politically incorrect that they still seem to draw a pass from the audience – apparently willing to overlook the sexist attitude toward Ulla and the mockery directed at Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-keeping diehard Nazi who has penned the worst musical script that Max has ever read, Springtime for Hitler. Bower makes the right choices in casting the very un-Swedish Hailey Thomas as Ulla, draping her curves with a modicum of modesty, and limiting her flirtatiousness in comparison with Max’s leering. The Sveedish accent is ba-a-a-d, which is paradoxically good, and she’s positively smashing in her Nazi eagle outfit.

Neo-Nazis are less of a laughing matter than they were 18 years ago, so it’s also wise to have Chip Bradley tone down Franz’s achtung authoritarian qualities and pile on some extra daffiness. The result is the best performance I’ve seen from Bradley, particularly when he shows us all how Hitler should be sung at Springtime auditions. Bradley’s eccentric excellence is sustained when we encounter the Greenwich Village artistes who will direct Franz’s stinker, Roger De Bris and his loyal assistant Carmen Ghia, handpicked for their inabilities.

Here we are blessed with the gay flamboyance of Matt Kenyon as Carmen and the Ethel Merman regality of Paul Reeves Leopard as Roger. It takes a professional-grade queen to pull off Carmen’s arrogant servility and Roger’s ornate Chrysler Building party dress. Kenyon and Leopard have the goods. Leopard is certainly a different kind of Hitler than Bradley when Roger must sub for Franz on opening night.

On my fourth go-round with The Producers, I wasn’t laughing out loud until the Springtime for Hitler auditions, where I found myself enjoying the outrageousness as much as the newbies in the audience. I suspect their expectations were surpassed as much as mine were 18 years ago when Lane’s absence was announced as I stood in line outside the St. James Theatre. Enthusiasm for the Little Old Ladies and their tap-dancing walkers crackled like I remembered it even if the shtick has gone a little stale for me.

Iesha Nyree as Lick-me Bite-me and Layla Sutton as Hold-me Touch-me rounded out the named characters in the cast, which lists another 14 ensemble members who make choreographer Lauren “Loz” Gibbs look good. So what ever happened to the biddie named Kiss-me Feel-me? A victim of downsizing, we must presume.

Less Bard and More Beer

Theater Reviews: Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) and The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Four centuries after William Shakespeare’s death, Charlotte’s own Chickspeare inhabits a parallel universe. Or maybe it’s retribution: while all of the Bard’s works were performed by all-male theatre troupes, all of Chickspeare’s productions since 1998 have been “All women! All the time!” as originally promised. The “All Shakespeare” in the middle of that slogan was gradually blurred and dropped as the Chix added Reduced Shakespeare Company lampoons to their rep and then ventured father afield.

Written by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) is very much in the spirit of Reduced Shakespeare’s original assault on the Elizabethan titan’s complete works. The parentheses in the title, the quickie romp through multiple classics by three actors playing multiple roles, and the devotion of all of Act 2 to a single extravagant lampoon all follow the Reduced template.

But gender only begins to describe the difference between Chickspeare’s version and the 2010 Actor’s Theatre Every Christmas. The new model is as much an event as it is a theatre production, an experience that begins and ends at the newer NoDa Brewery on N. Tryon Street. In between, there are a couple of shuttle bus rides back and forth from the original Brewery location on N. Davidson Street. You’ll find more brew choices on tap at North Tryon, but the enticement of lifting a mug and participating in the many “To beer!” toasts during the Chix performance at North Davidson is hard to resist.

Few did last Friday night. Besides the brewskis, we had Anne Lambert lubricating the experience with a steady feed of Christmas trivia challenges on the bus ride to the show and the conviviality of the Chix banditas – Sheila Snow Proctor, Lane Morris, and Tanya McClellan – during their performance. But mainly, it was the beer that induced the party atmosphere.

Directing the show, Joanna Gerdy and Andrea King had a healthy disregard for the script. The playwrights labored under a handicap that never afflicted the Reduced Shakespeare collaborators when they chose ancient targets like Hamlet, the Bible, and American history for their merry desecrations. Unlike your seasonal carols, most of our familiar Christmas stories aren’t free-range prey. Copyright law prevents satiric assaults upon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Yuletide yarns of Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, and Jean Sheperd.

When Carleton, FitzGerald, and Alvarez lashed out at these restrictions, the result was “Gustav, the Green-Nosed Rain-Goat,” not the funniest sketch you’ll ever see. Morris never plays the mutated venison as if it were comedy gold, so there’s never any deadly straining to make it funnier than it is. We’ll raise a glass, and then we’ll move on.

The premise of the show is that Proctor wishes to proceed traditionally with a presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Morris and McClellan are sick and tired of the same old stuff. Before they’ll allow Snow to read her Dickens and play her Scrooge, she must join them in a medley of other Christmas faves, including Frosty the Snowman, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Grinch, O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and – maybe if there’s enough time – the inevitable It’s a Wonderful Life.

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There isn’t enough time, but that doesn’t deter Morris. While Proctor is on-task as Scrooge, with McClellan visiting her as all three ghosts, Morris keeps insisting that Proctor is George Bailey, inflicting on us a bevy of characters from New Bedford Falls, including George’s guardian angel, his brother, his banker nemesis, and his adoring wife. By the time Lane reaches the wife, it comes off oddly like a female impersonation.

Fortunately, Proctor is the ideal Scrooge in the face of these torments. There’s a bit of Oliver Hardy and Bud Abbott in her forbearance, but we somehow remain on her side throughout her ordeal. At the climax of Christmas Carol, Morris is still bedeviling her, so she finally submits to becoming George Bailey – in a schizophrenic frenzy that finds her shuttling between Scrooge and Bailey as both McClellan and Morris assail her.

In her surrender, Proctor produces a Jimmy Stewart impersonation that’s barely good enough to let you know what she’s doing. It will probably improve during the next couple of weekends as the run continues, but I’m not sure it should. Likewise, Proctor can be a mite slow changing costumes, but McClellan’s patience with her cast mate is so priceless, it would hardly pay for Proctor to hurry.

It’s been a rocky road for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte since developers forced them out of their longtime home on Stonewall Street last summer. We thought they would resurface on Louise Avenue, but negotiations there collapsed, and the company tacked toward Freedom Drive. City and county paperwork delayed the opening, so their Toxic Avenger was redirected to a nearby church, and the current Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical has been rerouted to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, Charlotte Ballet’s HQ on N. Tryon Street.

I was curious to see how director Chip Decker and his design team would adapt to studios with so much space and such a high ceiling. With two fair-sized ramshackle trailers, topped by two jumbo projection screens, height isn’t a problem, and the design team fills out the stage with a fence, some Florida flamingo kitsch, an incongruous array of Star Wars memorabilia and, dead center of the stage between the two trailers, a half-decorated Christmas tree.

That odd tree, straddling the borderline between Rufus and Darleen’s properties, triggers Betsy Kelso’s plotline. Rufus loves Christmas and adores Darleen, but mean Darleen snarls “Bah” and “Humbug” to both. She will not decorate her trailer or even allow Rufus onto her property to decorate her side of the tree. That’s a source of huge consternation to Betty, the manager of Armadillo Acres, who has always wanted – but failed – to win the big prize awarded to the best-decorated trailer park. A vague curse plagues Armadillo Acres, and it too will to be exorcised before we reach a happy ending.

There’s a certain amount of respectability in Betty, so we’re fortunate that it is more than counterbalanced by the trashiness of her other tenants, Pickles and Lin (short for Linoleum). They also come in handy when ghosts are needed to populate Darleen’s Dickensian dream sequence. Rufus’s romantic fantasies and Betty’s hopes of nabbing top kitsch honors are revived when Darleen, in an effort to pull the plug on the park’s Christmas lights, gets electrocuted by Rufus’s déclassé cable-splitter and wakens with amnesia. That enables her to forget what a Scrooge she is and the fact that she belongs to Jackie, owner of a slutty pancake joint.

If you missed the first and second comings of this trashy romp, it’s good for you to know all the basics I’ve detailed. Although Actor’s Theatre has done well with the Charlotte Ballet space, they have thoroughly failed to conquer its acoustics. So the songs and lyrics by David Nehls are more crucial to your enjoyment than usual – but often unintelligible over the four-piece band led by music director Brad Fugate.

Tommy Foster isn’t as rednecky as Ryan Stamey was as Rufus, but he’s a tad more pathetic and lovable. Karen Christensen is more than sufficiently bitchy as Darleen, and we often forget that Matt Kenyon is in drag as Lin. (So does he, I suspect.) But Jon Parker Douglas nearly steals the show as Jackie when he is possessed during the climactic exorcism. It’s an epileptic farting fantasia that isn’t quickly forgotten – and the kind of broad physical comedy this acoustically-challenged show desperately needs.

 

Kinky Catfight in the Catskills

Theatre Review: Casa Valentina

 Casa Valentina

By Perry Tannenbaum

The cool Catskill Mountains have long served as cities of refuge for young and old New Yorkers. Escaping the summer heat, families might settle in for a few weeks at bungalow colonies, letting the kids run wild until dusk. Or parents might breathe easier back in the city, sending their schoolkids off to the many summer camps that dotted the hills. What set the Catskills apart from similar getaway locales was the storied Borscht Belt, where big names such as Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, and Duke Ellington performed at venues that didn’t pretend to be Venice or the Pyramids.

By a quirk of history, Harvey Fierstein’s sad paean to the escapist wickedness of the Catskills, Casa Valentina, opened on Broadway a scant three weeks before the last great bastion of Catskills chic, the Kutcher’s hotel and resort, closed down during the spring of 2014. Even the pugnacious New York Daily News rent its garments, declaring, “It’s time to sit shiva for the old Borscht Belt.” Somewhere among my photo albums, an old shot I took of my parents rubbing elbows with Howard Da Silva at Kutcher’s gained more sentimental value.

The demise of the Borscht Belt during the run of Valentina also intensified the soft showbiz glow Fierstein has sprinkled upon the Chevalier d’Eon, a foundering Catskills enterprise run by Rita and George Vaccaro. Their bungalow colony caters exclusively to male transvestites seeking to escape their wives’ surveillance and release their inner Ethel Mermans.

Business is not as usual as the action begins at Spirit Square in the current Queen City Theatre Company remount directed by Glenn T. Griffin. George returns from the post office, where he was grilled for hours about an intercepted manila envelope, teeming with child pornography, addressed to his establishment. Back at the main house, two newcomers will check in that very day.

The first of these is the subtlest of Fierstein’s artifices, Jonathan, who seems to have little more experience in the art of cross-dressing than stealthily fingering his wife’s wardrobe. There’s little more in his pathetic suitcase than a humdrum dress and a sorrier wig. So George and Rita must introduce all the regular guests to Jonathan, a great convenience for us. More importantly, most of these regulars flutter excitedly around Jonathan, teaching him the fundamentals of femininity, demonstrating their hospitality and humanity.

Perhaps the most formal of Jonathan’s initiation rites is the taking of a woman’s name. He chooses the most Shakespearean name in the gang, Miranda. Of course, it’s George who sports the most flamboyant handle, Valentina. He’s also the most eager to entertain his guests. If he’s going to dress up like a nightclub chanteuse, he’s going to be one. He has no trouble enticing some of the other girls to join him in the merry role-playing. Look out for some sassy lip-syncing.

You’ll find some interesting contrasts between this risqué place and Fierstein’s more famous club, La Cage aux Folles. Although Albin is the celebrated Zaza, his partner Georges out on the Riviera hasn’t given himself a female name. Nor does the threat to the Chevalier d’Eon come from some pompous political ass outside the transvestite culture hoping to ride the wave of a moral crusade. No, the most devastating threats here come from within, so the prevailing tone grows sinister and dramatic rather than lighthearted and farcical.

Our other newcomer comes with an agenda, determined to stir up a ruckus. Charlotte runs a magazine for transvestites and, as publisher of Valentina’s writing, has some leverage as well. He wants Valentina’s circle to organize under a charter, and he wants one of basic tenets to differentiate all members from the beasts, emphatically declaring that transvestites are not homosexuals. It’s the first question he’s always asked on speaking tours, and he wants it to stop.

Talk about a party pooper. Obviously, Zaza never got Charlotte’s memo or he would have turned in his tiara long ago. Charlotte is relying on Valentina to help him overcome whatever resistance his clientele might voice. But George proves to be a more squeamish diva than Albin, unable to declare “I Am What I Am” because he’s not sure what that is. Compounding tensions, the whole crisis has Rita wondering whom she married, George or Valentina?

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Griffin and his cast must navigate some murky waters here – and they only grow deeper as we move along. Fortunately, our anchors are strong with Berry Newkirk as Jonathan/Miranda wading into the culture for the first time and Barbi Van Schaick as Rita, helping George – and all of us – process the implications of the shifting currents. Newkirk is nervous and delicate, beautifully intimidated by his elders, the final aura that ennobles them. Van Schaick, on the other hand, is downtrodden and despairing in the face of all the weighty life lessons she has learned, determined to stay the course even though it’s unlikely she and her spouse will ever reach the light.

Joe Rux as Isadore/Charlotte and Matthew Corbett as The Judge/Amy generate the most intense hostilities, one more devious and unprincipled than the other. We probably hate Rux far more because of Charlotte’s bullying and homophobia, but Corbett is no less destructive, a massive oil spill of moral and physical weakness, all the more repugnant from a judge.

You may recall Matt Kenyon as the starstruck servant in the excellent Theatre Charlotte production of La Cage last fall. The telltale giggle is still there as Kenyon transitions to the more substantial role of Albert/Bessie, glad to become a bubbly Miss Congeniality in bringing Miranda along. He’s reliably comical purveying Bessie’s flamboyant vanity, yet he doesn’t shrivel when Charlotte shows up. More in the background are Steven Martin as Michael/Gloria and Christopher Jones as Theodore/Terry. Shiny costumes by Jamey Varnadore help them project some of the most formidable style and poise.

The riddle of how to make Kristian Alexander Wedolowski glamorous as Valentina remains unsolved by Varnadore. Wedolowski is a handsome enough man as George, but the bright red wig selected for his Valentina transforms him into a nightmare Little Lulu. But glamor isn’t the point at the heart of all this turmoil. It’s the stresses threatening Valentina’s livelihood, his marriage, and the circle he has drawn around him as his audience and support group. The ultra-neat absurdity of Wedolowski’s appearance, somehow crumbling in both of his gender guises, helps him to project both George and Valentina’s confusion.

Named after a famed and gender-ambiguous French spy of the 18th century, there really was a Chevalier d’Eon up in the Catskills, where New York professionals dolled up in secret, until it became known as Casa Susanna. The owners were Tito Valenti and his wife Marie. They weren’t very different at all from Fierstein’s Vaccaros. Marie did operate a wig store, Tito did write for the daring Transvestia, and the couple prided themselves on schooling neophytes.

Virginia Prince (née Arnold Lowman), Charlotte’s real-life counterpart, closed down Transvestia in 1979, nine years after Susanna’s last column for the magazine. Both Susanna and Virginia eventually made up their minds, finishing their lives as women. “I invented gender,” Virginia boasted to the New York Times in 2006, less than two years before she died at the age of 96.